On January 9 about 120 residents attended a public meeting at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society to hear from the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), their paid consultants, and an advisory committee about options for “downgrading Route 198 to a neighborhood parkway,” according to the Buffalo News. Among ideas discussed were adding stoplights, restoring Agassiz Circle at Parkside, getting rid of the spiral footbridge, reconfiguring or removing on-ramps, and beautifying bridges. Among issues discussed were speed limits, accommodating traffic volumes, and expanding the scope of the study beyond its limits from Grant Street to Parkside Avenue. The Buffalo News stated that the goal of the effort was to find “ways of making Route 198 a more leisurely drive without changing its elevation and alignment, filling it in, or covering it over.”
That was January 9, 2002.
In the fifteen years since, in many ways, we haven’t advanced beyond that tinkering around the edges. The community has made progress in rethinking the Scajaquada Corridor, and is perhaps closer than ever to a coherent vision, but we’re still not where we need to be. But while that has been a source of frustration for a decade and a half, now it’s a full-blown crisis. The DOT has told Buffalo that it’s done with tinkering and rethinkering, and will just go ahead and do what it’s willing to do – or nothing.
This has been the danger all along with the tinkering-around-the-edges approach: at some point, the DOT reaches the limits of what it can do with the current roadway, and has to say, “no more.” Clearly, they have reached that point. But to ask them to go beyond, to do anything transformational, requires a conceptual leap that engineers – not trained to see beyond the ends of their slide rules, or outside their given scope of work – don’t readily make.
In the last fifteen years there have been no shortage of good ideas, from a community full of graduates of SUNY’s school of architecture and planning, and who are marinated in the ideas and ideals of Frederick Law Olmsted. But the DOT can’t design a project from ideas. And the elected officials they take direction from aren’t known for generating original ideas, but are used to putting their seal of approval on one of a menu of options they are presented. And who has the resources to put together options – with analysis, site plans, surveys, and renderings? The DOT. Other stakeholders with ideas are outgunned.
Thankfully, in the last year Scajaquada corridor advocates have taken important steps in this regard. Both the Western Scajaquada Coalition and the Scajaquada Cultural Coalition have released important work toward creative solutions to some of the thorny design issues, especially withing the park, and advancing a vision for the corridor.
Lou Haremski, especially, as the coalition’s design chair, has advocated for more of this kind of planning. He touched on that in an interview on WBEN (transcripted here) the morning after last month’s public meeting, in which he also said,
It makes no sense to push forward if it’s not the right design. We would love to see something happen quickly, but to sacrifice quality for quickness? This is a generational decision that’s being made. This won’t change for another 50 years. It’s not a project where two years from now, someone says, “we could have done this better, let’s spend another $110 Million.” You know, this is it. Nothing else will change in this corridor – while I’m alive.
Clearly, we are not yet where we need to be. Can we find a better approach before it’s too late?
A better approach
Fortunately, an ideal planning model exists just down the road, along the once-and-hopefully-future Humboldt Parkway. A decade ago, a coalition of stakeholders came together to form the Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC) with the goal of removing a longtime scar that has been blighting the once-thriving Buffalo neighborhoods between Jefferson and Fillmore Avenues. Their advocacy resulted in DOT undertaking a study of options to remediate the blighting effect of the Kensington Expressway.
Although initially reluctant to study the option that advocates preferred – creating a deck over a portion of the expressway – which was also the most expensive, DOT was convinced to do so by Mayor Brown. They contracted with the UB School of Architecture and Planning, which provided several services that have proved crucial to moving the issue forward.
First, the School conducted a graduate studio class with both planning and architecture students – their top annual studio class. (Note: a studio class is one that tackles a hands-on planning or architecture problem, and requires students to show analysis and design skills.) Studio classes are valuable, because students can push the envelope while still bringing a wide range of analysis and planning tools to bear. I was honored to be invited by Professors Hiro Hata and Harry Warren to be an informal consultant to the class, and guest critic for studio reviews of the student work. It was refreshing to see the variety of perspectives, conceptual frameworks, and life experiences the students – many from overseas – brought to bear on the problem.
Olmsted, appropriately, was central to the studio – including these three themes taken directly from the final presentation:
- “Repair”…What did Olmsted do?
- “Recreate”…What would Olmsted have done?
- “Reinvent”…What could we do with Olmsted?
But their work wasn’t just an “academic exercise.” They also produced visuals, including 3-D renderings, and a physical model, all boosted by funding from DOT. UB’s Center for Computational Research also created a digital simulation. Most importantly, their work informed a subsequent economic analysis by the UB Regional Institute, also funded by DOT. An important factor they identified and explored was the potential benefit to the Jefferson and Fillmore commercial corridors from restoring the Humboldt Parkway neighborhood in between. The economic analysis showed, in even the most conservative projection, a more than two-to-one return from the estimated cost of decking a section of the expressway and restoring a section of the parkway.
That’s the kind of work we need to have done for the Scajaquada Expressway corridor.
The work by UB led to further work by C&S Companies, a Syracuse transportation engineering firm, which did a detailed feasibility and cost analysis, including the development of a feasible cross section.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, by having the DOT engaged directly in studying the very option for the Kensington they once shied away from, they and the Governor they serve got behind it. Last year, in a gigantic step forward, the Governor announced an additional $6 Million for the more detailed engineering and environmental studies that would be needed to proceed to deck a portion of the Kensington. Asked about funding the projected $500 Million cost, the Governor asserted that the State could pay for it through bonding, as it does other transportation projects.
How is it that Humboldt Parkway restoration is making such progress, in a relatively depressed area of the city, while Scajaquada corridor restoration has made little headway, despite passing through one of the most significant Olmstedian landscapes in America and being adjacent to Buffalo’s most iconic neighborhood? Especially since discussions about the Scajaquada have been going on for over fifteen years while the Humboldt Parkway effort has been going on for only ten? Note the “steps” illustration above: over a decade the ROCC effort has taken many steps forward, each of which is also a step upward. The Scajaquada corridor effort, on the other hand, has taken few, if any, steps either forward or upward. It would do well to follow in ROCC’s footsteps.
The principal selling point of this approach is that it provides a definite path forward, with milestones along the way, that will take us to a destination. We can’t have another fifteen years of skirmishes and meetings. And this governor, to his credit, likes to get things done. If we can’t accept the current DOT plan, we need to be able to show a path toward a plan we can accept, that we can walk together in a reasonable length of time.
ROCC’s approach is also in keeping with the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) call to rethink state DOTs. These agencies were mostly created mid-century to assist the federal government in building the interstate highway system. Although that system created a kind of high priesthood of engineers, serving the god of mobility above all others, PPS makes the crucial point that, ironically, DOTs now also uniquely have the resources and tools to help solve the very problems they have helped to create. That has proven the case for the Kensington. To have any hope of radically remaking the Scajaquada corridor, substantially controlled by DOT, it will also have to be there, as well.
To be more like ROCC, one step the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition (SCC) can – and must – take is to improve both internal and external communication. Yes, everyone is busy, and people are volunteering their time, but let’s do better.
And there needs to be more room at their table for more advocates and allies. It wouldn’t hurt to invite the economic, social, and environmental justice groups to become involved, as they were with the inner and outer harbors. After all, urban expressways impacted some of our most vulnerable populations and community resources like parks and waterways – all so that suburbanites speed into, out of, and through the city on separated roadways in automotive cocoons. Fixing this is an economic and social justice issue. For such groups, organizing is their bread and butter. Given the weak, unorganized pushback before, during, and after the DOT’s pronouncement last month, the Scajaquada effort clearly needs help on that front. The Humboldt Parkway effort has had a strong justice theme from the beginning, and it helps fuel their passionate advocacy. That’s another page from their playbook that Scajaquada should steal.
After all, this is a mayoral election year. Candidates should be jostling each other out of the way to want to take the community’s side on this issue, even over a powerful governor. When I was one of the organizers of the successful Chill the Fill campaign to save Rochester’s subway tunnel, we took full advantage of the issue coming up in a mayoral election year. The fact that no mayoral candidate – and, in fact, not a single elected official at all – has taken a stance or made a statement about this is astonishing. This week an elected official who wants a better plan for the expressway told me that advocates and the community need to be louder and more active on this issue. No general is going to go into battle without an army. We have no shortage of people in the community who care about this. Let’s get them plugged in and get them mobilized.
What to do now
What happened last month was a moment of clarity: New York State is taking its gloves off, and they have made it clear they intend to shove a project down the community’s throat. That’s just what happened with the inner and outer harbors, and we need to marshal a similar response. Don’t forget that after the community fended off top-down proposals in both those situations, the once-implacable State entities made 180-degree turns and worked with the community on better solutions. But that was only in the face of solid opposition from both the community and local elected officials.
Unless the community pushes back, this is the timeline the DOT will follow:
This month, everyone will be back from summer vacations, and back to more predictable schedules. We need to take advantage of that to get people together.
Long-term, we need to look at how to get more planning work done, as Lou Haremski has pointed out. Perhaps the Mayor can ask DOT to fund work by UB of the kind they did on the Kensington. Or perhaps advocates can approach UB about becoming involved with the Scajaquada in the way they were with the Kensington.
We should be asking mayoral candidates, county legislature candidates, and even county-wide candidates to take a position on the expressway. Regardless of who is up for re-election this year, we should be asking elected officials to speak out on this issue.
And at the very least, there should be a concerted effort to ask DOT to extend the comment period, and hold an additional public meeting with adequate notice. If they refuse, the community itself should hold such a meeting.
At the same time, we should be looking for some smaller-scale improvements and changes that DOT could start next year. After all, it is a gubernatorial election year, and the Governor would like something he can announce or even break ground for, accompanied by cheers rather than jeers. Ideal candidates for such projects include the removal of on-ramps near the Albright-Knox, that the Governor could point to as supporting the once-in-a-generation museum expansion.
Finally, we need to fundamentally reframe the fundamental approach that has fundamentally failed for fifteen years. For all that time, the game has been keeping the same transportation facility, in the same place, occupying the same footprint – but tarted up to be more “parklike” and, more recently, a “complete street.” People even invoke the name of Olmsted for something profoundly non-Olmstedian. Olmsted and Vaux created parkways and wide boulevards leading to their parks, and connecting their parks. This began with Prospect Park in Brooklyn and came to full flower right here in Buffalo. But they did not create parkways and boulevards within their parks. And as for “complete streets,” and pedestrian grade crossings, they actually practiced something entirely different called “the separation of ways.” Also, Olmsted and Vaux put non-park streets running through their parks below grade so as to be almost hidden, not on the surface. It is astonishing and nonsensical that, with Buffalo’s Olmstedian legacy, and with SUNY’s architecture and planning school just up the road, we are not fully exploring how to incorporate these genuinely Olmstedian approaches – and even complete removal where possible.
Buffalo Rising’s Steel has written about this reframing, and I’ll be writing more about it, as well. The Western Scajaquada Coalition has already taken important steps in this direction on one end of the corridor. We need to take it further and farther.
While we are closer than we have been in the last fifteen years, we’re just not where we need to be on the Scajaquada Corridor. We need to redouble our efforts to get there, be it in partnership with DOT or in opposition.